009.2: Jordan Reynolds:: The Word of Boris 009

"Boris lives in a world that mirrors reality. It is not real, you see, because of the words, which Yankelevich’s Author realizes might be the most frightening aspect of his position as creator living through his creation. This philosophical trajectory carries the book and provides the more important reason that it should be praised: it unabashedly recognizes the artifice of art but refuses to succumb to the fear of its lack of utility."

The Word of Boris



Matvei Yankelevich:: Boris by the Sea:: Octopus Books


In her book If There is Something to Desire, Vera Pavlova remarks, “may the body stay glued to the soul, / may the soul fear the body.” In Boris by the Sea, Matvei Yankelevich plays with this tension, while also inventing a world for it to be displayed in. The world of Boris is particularly abstract in its inventive attention to what is real. In this poem, turned essay, turned drama, turned raison d’être, Matvei Yankelevich positions his readers in the same way that he positions his leading man: “lay[ing] flat on the ground [beginning] to watch things happen.” Poetry, when it is any good, should always assume the reader in such a state, but Yankelevich takes this position to its most literal extreme. At a first glance, the book becomes a collection of vignettes showing Boris’ actions and reactions to his rather mundane life: thinking of a chair, watering a plant, thinking about writing a book, etc. The cumulative effect of all of these snapshots begins to beg bigger questions of the reader, and even the author himself:

Boris lived in his room and he thought about why people need each other. People need each other, thought Boris, to check each other for ticks. People need each other for solving the problem of what is inside.


Yankelevich shows the reader what is happening while using language in its most flexible and suggestive capacities to suggest almost everything else. This motive force pushes the book beyond the mundane and into the visionary. Are people needed to see what is inside the ticks or what is inside the humans? Is this figurative or literal? Ticks are outward, right? So how is the other being used? These contradictions contribute to the specifically abstract position of Boris in his world, taking on the concerns and problems that we, as humans, face and finding little comfort in the solutions that he either creates, or is offered.

This banal specificity is best represented by the prose sections which book-end the text, Boris’ creation and destruction of a chair:

He thought he might build something else but what.

A chair.

He started by thinking about what it should look like, what is a chair, what makes it a chair. When he opened his eyes he saw it there before him. And when he closed his eyes again he fell asleep and dreamed of things he could never build in his room, things he would never see before him once he opened his eyes.


This passage is countered with the later disassemblage of the chair:

Boris took the chair apart. He made the parts into the pile. He lit a match. As the parts were wooden, they began to burn. Boris threw the matches in, too. They were also wooden and also began to burn.

He watched and watched as the parts burned and burned. He was satisfied, as though it had finally fulfilled its true purpose. And Boris had helped it to do so. And when it was finished there was a charred black hole in the wooden floor where once a chair had stood. And Boris climbed into the hole.


In both the creation and the destruction, Boris actively alters his environment, creating possibilities for himself that failed to exist beforehand. And Yankelevich maintains his position as author by allowing the language to mirror reality as closely as possible. This is not a poetry that attempts to re-envision a world, but instead focuses on seeing the world for what it is. Yankelevich emphasizes that the world is nothing more than a series of coincidences, actions and reactions, and all we have available to us to cope is our language and our body.

In a small passage entitled “The Metaphysics of a Boris by the Sea,” Yankelevich writes, “Boris looked at his hand and could not identify whose hand it was.” Boris becomes a foil for the character of the Author, who we might assume to be Yankelevich, someone who is just as lost as Boris in the world that he is busy creating:

The Second Preface

I hope that Boris will help me in this respect.
Perhaps the theater for us holds an important truth:
that without a role a person is as good as dead.

People want someone to lie beside them.
When there’s someone else under the blanket,
in the dark, then you know who you are
in relation to that someone who lies beside you.

Who am I alone. Missing my role.
I’m afraid I might leave this world behind.
I hope that Boris will help me in this respect.


The introduction of the Author as someone who thinks through and with Boris sends the text streaming into a metapoetic/metadramatic space, a space where language is both art and life. In one of the letters from After Lorca, Jack Spicer writes that

Words are what sticks to the real. We use them to push the real, to drag the real into the poem. They are what we hold on with, nothing else. They are as valuable in themselves as rope with nothing to be tied to.


In all of his day-to-day activities (including his Spicer-inspired aim to write a book without words), Boris lives in a world that mirrors reality. It is not real, you see, because of the words, which Yankelevich’s Author realizes might be the most frightening aspect of his position as creator living through his creation. This philosophical trajectory carries the book and provides the more important reason that it should be praised: it unabashedly recognizes the artifice of art but refuses to succumb to the fear of its lack of utility.

In fact there was nothing to keep him from opening it. Nothing but the imagined threat of what he imagined might step out once he did it. Sometimes the imagined affects our reactions more than the real. This was the case. Were he to find it empty the doors would have been unnecessary and therefore frightening in their enormous uselessness.


Yankelevich refuses to find his art (be that words, poetry, drama, prose, etc.) empty. Boris is still alive by the end of the book, somehow surviving the precarious nature of his situation as character and mirror for all lives. In her blurb, Rosmarie Waldrop sees Boris as someone “thrown into a world he is ill-suited for,” which seems a bleak examination of a book whose main foci are the actions of the mind, body and art to improve the world, always through the word.

Matvei Yankelevich:: Boris by the Sea:: Octopus Books